Tunisia officials arrested in dispute over flag display

Ahmed Hafnaoui in the swimming pool
Tunisia's only defending Olympic swimming champion, Ahmed Hafnaoui, said last week he was not sure whether he would compete in Paris [Adam Nurkiewicz/Getty Images]

Prosecutors in Tunisia have arrested seven more sport officials over the failure to display the national flag at a swimming competition on Friday.

The heads of the Tunisian swimming federation and the national anti-doping agency were detained on Saturday after President Kais Saied reacted with fury to its absence.

Seven other officials were summoned on Monday.

In response to sanctions by the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada), which had banned the Tunisian flag from competitions, it was covered on Friday during a championship organised by the national swimming federation at the Radès Olympic pool.

Hours after the incident, Mr Saied visited the pool, raised the flag and sang the national anthem.

Calling the flag-covering an "act of aggression", he declared: "Tunisia cannot tolerate this."

In a meeting with Prime Minister Ahmed Hachani and other cabinet members, Mr Saied said "Tunisia comes before the Olympic Committee and before any other committees".

In a statement issued in the early hours of Saturday, the Tunisian youth and sports ministry announced the dissolution of the swimming federation board, as well as the dismissal of the head of the Tunisian anti-doping agency Anad and a sports official based in Ben Arous, near Tunis.

The decision followed "instructions" by President Saied "to take immediate measures... against those responsible for the incident of hiding the national flag", the statement said.

Mr Saied controls almost all levers of power in Tunisia.

Announcing the ban on 30 April, Wada said Tunisia would not host major sporting events and is barred from flying its flag at sporting events, including the upcoming Paris Olympics and Paralympic Games in Paris in July and August, until it complied with the revised global anti-doping code introduced in 2021.

On 3 May the Tunisian sports ministry announced that it had issued a decree mandating adherence to the new code, in response to the sanctions, and urged "expedited procedures" to ensure sanctions were lifted ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic games.

The sanctions have not yet been lifted.

Tunisia has one defending Olympic swimming champion, the 2021 400m freestyle gold medallist Ahmed Hafnaoui.

The 21-year-old said on 8 May that he was suffering from an unspecified injury and might not compete in Paris.

President Kais Saied came to power in 2019 and in July 2022 Tunisians voted to give him sweeping new powers in a move critics say risked the return of authoritarian rule to the country.

Mr Saied has justified his actions by saying he needed new powers to break a cycle of political paralysis and economic decay.